Can we redeem “civic virtue” in the age of Donald Trump?

Roundup
tags: election 2016, Nixon, Trump



Andrew Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University and coauthor with Nancy Isenberg of "Madison and Jefferson."  His latest book is "Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead." Nancy Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University and coauthor with Andrew Burstein of "Madison and Jefferson."  Her latest book is "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America."

… Rationalization is a strange thing. Trump enthusiasts claimed they loved his “raw honesty,” his unscripted style of speaking. To them, undomesticated crassness meant that he wasn’t one of the intelligentsia or the political elite. His anti-state posturing built on Tea Party resentment, but went back much further in the historical imagination. Andrew Jackson’s campaign in 1824 sold voters on a rude, blustering, ill-educated militarist as the virtuous outsider, a regular guy who would get rid of the parasites and flatterers who flocked to the Washington of the overeducated John Quincy Adams.

Jackson’s appeal was a lot like Trump’s in that he promised to voice the discontents of the deserving common (white) man. Jackson held up the simple life of the Tennessee back country as the “real” America. His political hero was Thomas Jefferson, who had long heralded the simple yeoman farmer as the ultimate source of civic virtue; yet Jefferson accepted that land-engrossing elites would continue to monopolize political offices.  

Our political mythology is stuck on the constant longing for an earlier-imagined simplicity, a return to fairness by stripping away barriers of bureaucracy. In America, the people have always demanded simple answers, as if “simple” was inherently virtuous. Those who embraced Steve Forbes’ flat-tax proposal a few election cycles ago decided it had to be better than what we had in place, because it was simple. The perverse appeal of Trump’s wall against Mexican immigration has a similar resonance: “It’s easy,” he said, giving the gullible a simple visual image of a big and powerful barrier – a one-step building project must be better than a dizzying array of incomprehensible immigration laws.

Americans need not bemoan the loss of civic virtue. The concept was flawed from the beginning. James Madison always assumed that government, if it were to solve problems, would have be guided by an intellectual elite capable of curbing the unruly excesses of those who too easily fell for a demagogue’s simple solutions. The founders were pretty unanimous that virtue derived in part from the ownership of property, from being invested in community and nation; and that only the wealthy could afford to serve in what were then poorly paid federal posts. John Adams felt that the fame attending national service would be all that could convince men in comfortable circumstances to hold office. In that sense, Adams probably would understand Trump better than the others of his generation. He wrote of men as “generally perfect slaves to the Love of Fame,” who “descend to mean tricks and artifices” in the pursuit of reputation.

These dated ideals – virtue, educated opinion, and disinterested sacrifice for the public good – are easily undermined. Educated opinion is distorted today as never before: modern media sensationalism, commercial sponsorship of every conceivable space, Internet tunnel vision, fake news. Fame has become an end in itself, counted in Twitter followers, YouTube viewers and the like. And then there’s the ongoing addiction to reality TV, where outright humiliation is tolerated so long as it insures the image-conscious of enduring popularity.  

Trump understands one thing. In business, on TV and in conducting a presidential campaign, all that matters is making the news. He was famous and infamous, but most of all he was a media tsunami. He was not to be avoided. Fame is Donald Trump’s drug of choice. Being famous gives a person an automatic market value, a faux-virtue that comes from virtual supremacy.

The American founders could never have conceived us. It’s long past time to give up the glorification of a simple, quaint, small-town mindset. Virtuous people, virtuous protests, virtuous boycotts and virtuous marches will not save democracy without a lot of help from supremely well-educated legal activists armed to the teeth with anti-corruption weapons. Old John Adams well understood that corruption comes from the top (the 1 percent) and the bottom (the unchecked passions of the easily manipulated). Back in the day, women were praised for their moral superiority gained through attention to domesticated virtues; by staying out of politics, away from the exercise of power, they remained clean.  

It is not a stretch to suggest that, with traditional impulses in play, Hillary Clinton was regarded as worse than a man in the same position, because her “crooked” ways brought back the chauvinist ideology of ages past: When a woman behaves like a man she not only loses her virtue, but as the “weaker vessel,” corrupts all that she touches. For many Trump supporters, the trait they admired most was the brutishness in his masculinity, his uninhibited delight in exacting revenge. Roguish arrogance, gut-level reactions, were the qualities expected of men in his position, qualities that somehow made him a safer choice than that “nasty woman” Hillary.

Virtue requires sacrifice, and it demands generosity, civility, concern and understanding. Civic virtue has thus been identified mainly with social institutions. Indeed, government is necessary to curb our worst behavior, ranging from financial greed to outright murder, because we can’t count on each individual to repress his selfish desires. One of the most fundamental duties of government is to protect citizens from harm, whereby the greater good must be insured without a gross violation of individual liberty.  

The balance between liberty and order can only be achieved through government. Government officials likewise must be checked and restrained by law. Trump pretended during the campaign that he would be above the law, that he would “make America great again” by sheer willpower. This is not the case. Shortly, he will be accountable for his every action — perhaps for the first time in his life….




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